More Austrian than Italian, this could be the worst place in Italy to get pasta. But on every other score, Bolzano and South Tyrol is fairy-tale territory, with stunning mountains and this perfectly beautiful small town.
Last year, I suffered through probably the worst spaghetti dish ever served to me in a restaurant in Italy. Overcooked pasta, swollen and limp, in a barely seasoned tomato sauce that should have been allowed to rest in peace in its tin. At first, this very un-Italian state of affairs made absolutely no sense. Then I understood.
As a rule, Italians do not make bad spaghetti. Their affinity for good, simple food made from the finest ingredients available to mankind is one of the defining characteristics of their national character. As long as you have not fallen victim to a vile tourist trap in Venice or Florence, you will only ever be presented with culinary craftmanship of the highest order. Italians will under no circumstances accept compromises when it comes to their food.
Case in point: Recently, I stayed at the highest hut in Europe, placed on the narrow summit of fifth-highest peak on the continent. Getting here was a twelve-hour climb, roped up with a guide, negotiating deep crevasses in a glacier and forcing our way up a steep mountain side with crampons and ice-axes. The only way to bring in supplies to this exposed mountaineer’s hut was by helicopter. Yet that evening we enjoyed a simple, but perfectly cooked three-course dinner and a fine Brunello di Montalcino. Because Italians do not compromise with this stuff.
So, what was going on with this terrible lunch? Only as I looked around the restaurant did it dawn on me. Everyone else were enthusiastically stabbing away at their knödel, the boiled dumplings that are foreign to the Italian kitchen but a popular staple in Eastern Europe. Because while the map might state that I was officially in Italy, culturally- and, clearly, culinarily – this was really Austrian territory.
Over the past centuries, Northern Italy has been very much under the influence of the Austrian empire. Cities like Venice and Milan were under Austrian rule until about 150 years ago. Visit Trieste on the Adriatic and you’ll find belle époque Viennese cafes that are just as grand as anything in the Austrian capital.
But nowhere is the Austrian influence felt more clearly than in South Tyrol. This used to be part of Austria and in many ways still feels like it. During World War I the front line passed right along the ridgelines of South Tyrol’s stunningly beautiful Dolomite mountains. Hike here today, and you can still see century-old barbed wired 10,000 feet up in the sky. To reach the vertiginous front line, Italian soldiers bolted metal rungs and safety wires into the vertical rock faces, in the process inventing the Via Ferrata that has since become a world-famous adventure activity. After the war, South Tyrol and all her many Austrian citizens was ceded to Italy. Today, after a few stumbles, South Tyrol has become a successful autonomous region where both Italian and Austrian languages and cultures coexist peacefully.
The unofficial capital of South Tyrol is Bolzano. For many centuries, this historic town has guarded the most important pass between Italy and Austria. Every street sign is in both Italian and German. (Really, Via Roma sounds so much better than Rom Strasse!). Everyone speaks both Italian and German, and while the lifestyle is Italian, the architecture is unmistakably Austrian.
The town just oozes charm and quality of life. With few tourists and many well-heeled locals, the old town centre is stage-set pretty with pastel-painted townhouses and cobblestoned streets. You can admire the colourful medieval, Gothic and Belle Époque buildings, with their gables, turrets and frescoes, but there is only one do-not-miss attraction: The archaeology museum with Ötzi, the perfectly preserved body of an ancient hunter who has been trapped in the ice of a nearby glacier for 5,300 years.
As the historic centre is car-free, this is an eminently enjoyable place to walk around, and to dine al fresco at one of the many restaurants in this very lively town. (And apart from that one disastrous pasta in a mountain hut up in the Dolomites, the food is actually very good.)
Talking about those mountains: The Dolomites are right on Bolzano’s door-step, with one of the most distinctive peaks visible from the main square. Great mountain-roads and dramatic hiking opportunities lie just beyond the city limits. This makes Bolzano a great base for a day-hiking the surrounding mountains, and a big reason why Bolzano is one of our favourite secret places in Italy.